US troops will stay in Syria to counter 'strategic' threat from Iran

US forces, accompanied by Kurdish People's Protection Units fighters, driving their armoured vehicles near the northern Syrian village of Darbasiyah on April 28, 2017.
US forces, accompanied by Kurdish People's Protection Units fighters, driving their armoured vehicles near the northern Syrian village of Darbasiyah on April 28, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

BEIRUT (WASHINGTON POST, REUTERS) - Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday (Jan 17) committed the United States to an indefinite military presence in Syria, citing a range of policy goals that extend far beyond the defeat of ISIS as conditions for American troops to go home.

But a crisis unfolding on the Syria-Turkey border that threatens to embroil the US military in a wider regional conflict underscored how hard it will be for the relatively small US presence in Syria to influence the outcome of the conflict there.

Speaking in a major Syria-policy address hosted at Stanford University by the Hoover Institution, Tillerson listed vanquishing Al Qaeda, ousting Iran and securing a peace settlement that excludes President Bashar Assad as among the goals of a continued presence in Syria of about 2,000 American troops currently deployed in a Kurdish-controlled corner of northeastern Syria.

His comments represented the most comprehensive and ambitious articulation of Washington's often-contradictory policy in Syria since President Donald Trump took office a year ago, and they underline the extent to which the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group has inevitably also entangled the United States in the region's other conflicts.

The US troops in northeastern Syria were initially deployed during the Obama presidency to aid local Kurdish forces in the fight against ISIS. Their presence now appears to be evolving into a wider regional policy aimed, among its goals, at fulfilling the Trump administration's promises to get tough on Iran.

Tillerson said the experience of the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, which was followed by the rise of ISIS and the US military's return to the region, necessitated an open-ended US presence in Syria to prevent a revival of ISIS. "We cannot repeat the mistake of 2011, where a premature departure from Iraq allowed Al Qaeda in Iraq to survive and eventually become ISIS," Tillerson said.

But he also indicated that one of the biggest challenges of the post-ISIS era is Iran's enhanced role. With ISIS now beaten back into a small pocket of territory along the Iraq-Syria border, the United States has to address the reality that Iran's support for Assad in Syria has given Teheran a vastly expanded reach, he said.

"Continued strategic threats to the US other than ISIS persist. I am referring principally to Iran," he said. "Iran has dramatically strengthened its presence in Syria by deploying Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops; supporting Lebanese Hezbollah; and importing proxy forces from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. Through its position in Syria, Iran is in a stronger position to extend its track record of attacking US interests, allies and personnel in the region.

Squeezing Iran will, therefore, be one of the foremost goals of the continued US troop presence in Syria, he said, acknowledging that the project will be difficult.

"Syria remains a source of severe strategic problems and a major challenge for our diplomacy," Tillerson said. "But the United States will continue to remain engaged."

One of the starkest illustrations of the risks of the entanglement is unfolding now, as Turkey escalates threats to attack the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northern Syria.

The area is controlled by Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units, or YPG, who are allied to the United States but did not directly participate in the fight against ISIS. They are closely tied to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which is waging war against NATO member and US ally Turkey.

The latest threat from Turkey was triggered by US military plans to train a 30,000-strong border force to protect the Kurdish-controlled area of northeastern Syria. Turkey regards such a force as a threat to its national security. Saying that the force would represent "an army of terrorists", Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to wage war on Syria's Kurds. Turkish tanks and troops have massed in the border region, and Erdogan has said an invasion could occur this week.

But Tillerson later on Wednesday (Jan 17) denied that the United States had any intention to build a Syria-Turkey border force, saying the issue, which has incensed Ankara, had been “misportrayed”. 

Tillerson told reporters he had met Turkey’s foreign minister in Vancouver on Tuesday to clarify the issue.

“That entire situation has been misportrayed, misdescribed. Some people misspoke. We are not creating a border security force at all,” he said aboard his aircraft taking him back to Washington from Canada, where he hosted a meeting on North Korea. “I think it’s unfortunate that comments made by some left that impression. That is not what we’re doing.”

The United States would not feel compelled to defend the Afrin area because it did not feature in the war against ISIS, according to statements by US officials in recent days.

"We don't consider them as part of our Defeat ISIS operations, which is what we are doing there, and we do not support them" with training and advisory programs, a Pentagon spokesman, Marine Corps Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway, told Turkey's state-owned Anadolu Agency, in comments he confirmed in an email on Wednesday.

"We are not involved with them at all," he said. "The groups that we support are exclusively involved in operations countering Daesh," he added, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters on Wednesday after meeting with Tillerson in Vancouver, Canada, that any resulting damage to Turkey's ties with the United States could be beyond repair. "Such a development would damage Turkish-American ties in an irreversible manner," the Anadolu Agency quoted Cavusoglu as saying.